Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It will be awhile before rail goes to Houston's airports, and it doesn't matter

Earlier this month, Dallas officials celebrated the opening of the long-awaited DART light rail extension to DFW airport. It is now possible to travel by train from DFW airport to downtown Dallas. (I'll admit that I'm a bit proud to see that happen, because many years ago I was part of the team that did the planning and environmental analysis for that line.) Chronicle transportation writer Dug Begley used the occasion to ask his readers when, or even if, Houston would see its light rail system connect to its airports.

Begley's post - aside from tapping into the Houston-Dallas rivalry in order to generate some cheap page views - is emblematic of a gripe I've continually heard - that the city's light rail system is useless, that Houston is not a "world-class" city - until the trains go to both of the city's airports.

Indeed, of the 30 cities in the United States that currently have urban rail systems (heavy or light), 18 have rail connections to their airports, and two more have rail connections currently under construction. This puts Houston in the minority. From an intuitive standpoint, it also makes a lot of sense: if the train went to the airport, air travelers could ride the train instead of having to drive, pay for a cab, or use that slow local bus.

But here's a dirty not-so-secret of transportation planning: in the United States, only a small minority of air travelers ever use rail to reach an airport.

The Transit Cooperative Research Program published a study about the percentage of airport passengers that use rail to get to and from airports in cities in the United States that have such connections. It found that the airport with the highest share of rail-using passengers was DC’s Reagan National Airport, at 14 percent.

That’s right: fourteen percent. This is an airport right across the Potomac from Washington, with convenient rail access via the WMATA Blue and Yellow Lines, yet 86 percent of its passengers use a means other than rail to get there. The percentages of air travelers using rail were even more abysmal at other airports: 8 percent of flyers at Atlanta Jackson-Hartsfield and Chicago Midway, 4 percent at Chicago O’Hare, less than three percent at BWI, Cleveland or Philadelphia.

Granted, this report was published in 2000, but I don’t think the fundamentals have changed very much. In fact, an LA Weekly article from earlier this summer notes that a new light rail station serving LAX is expected to carry less than one percent of flyers using that airport.

There are many reasons why so few air travelers use rail to get to and from the airport. Business travelers who can expense their cab fare don't need to use it. Families who don't want to haul several pieces of luggage onto a train won't use it. Visitors unfamiliar with a city's rail network, or wary of public transportation in general, will avoid it. People going to places not served by the rail system obviously have no use for it. Locals going to the airport probably won't use it unless they live right on the rail line. In some cases, the distance between the airport terminal and the rail station discourages people from using it.

I've used rail to get to and from airports in at least two US cities (Chicago and Washington, DC), and I found these connections to be very convenient. But I was also traveling by myself, to downtown, without a lot of luggage. In other words, I was among a rather narrow subset of air travelers for whom rail was actually useful.

The fact is, of the people who use urban rail systems to access an airport, the airport employees themselves - baggage handlers, food service workers, custodial staff, TSA screeners - vastly outnumber air travelers. Certainly, the rail is useful for them. But they're also the same people who would be taking the local bus service to the airport if the rail weren't there.

With all that said, METRO's long-range plans do have the North (Red) Line eventually reaching Bush Intercontinental, and the Southeast (Purple) Line eventually connecting to Hobby. But we're not likely to see either of those connections built anytime soon, for funding and other reasons. And while these connections might be nice to have if and when they are built, they're really not going to have a outsized impact on the network's overall utility, or magically make Houston more "world class" than it already is.

Dear critics of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: you can shut up now

If you're like me, over the last couple of weeks your Facebook feed has been inundated with friends posting videos of themselves pouring buckets of ice water over their heads in order to raise awareness and money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease. Participants dump a bucket of ice water over their heads, and then challenge their friends to within 24 hours either do the same or donate a certain amount (usually $100) to ALS research.

The viral campaign seems to be doing its job - as of yesterday, almost $80 million has been raised for ALS research and care, which is a considerable increase over the $2.5 million collected over this same time period last year.

Along with generating funds for ALS research, however, the Ice Bucket Challenge is also generating criticism. Naysayers are claiming that the hordes of people posting videos of themselves dousing themselves in cold water is merely an exercise in self-congratulatory narcissism and conceit, or that people are engaging in "slacktivism," i.e. choosing to engage in a trivial activity rather than actually donate money, or that a surge in donations to ALS research will occur at the expense of giving to other charities (see here, here and here for some of these criticisms). And that's to say nothing of people who think that drenching oneself in ice water is fundamentally silly, or who are complaining simply because they've grown tired of videos clogging up their Facebook news feed.

To which my response is: oh, shut up.

The purpose of the Ice Bucket Challenge is to raise awareness and funds for ALS, and in that regard, the Challenge is clearly working. As an added bonus, people are having a lot of fun with it. I agree with The Houston Press's Sean Pendergast, who asks, "who cares about the motivation for people doing the videos if the overall movement has been a rousing success?"
Fundraising of any type requires marketing and an awareness build. That's what the Ice Bucket Challenge is. I lost my mother to breast cancer when she was the age I am today. I think it's awesome that the NFL players wear the pink wristbands and cleats in October. I don't ask for a tabulation of which players are cutting a check to Susan B. Komen and which ones aren't.

I guess my soap box salvo here is that people suck sometimes. Truly, if you're finding a reason to negatively dissect a movement that's raised millions to battle a deadly disease, a movement with which people have simultaneously had some fun, or if you're getting your bitch on because five straight entries on your news feed were Challenge videos (that you can easily skim over), I don't know what to say to you.
I know exactly what to say: shut up.

As with any fad, in a few weeks the novelty of the Ice Bucket Challenge will fade. But by the time that happens it will have significantly raised awareness and probably over $100 million in funds to fight ALS: a horrible, progressive, terminal disease that slowly entombs people inside their own bodies and then suffocates them to death. This is, in fact, of particular interest to me, because just a few weeks ago a good friend of mine lost her mother - somebody I knew - to this nasty disease. (FYI, In lieu of dumping a bucket of ice water over my head, I made a donation to a fund set up in her name.)

Forbes writer Tom Watson lists five reasons why the Ice Bucket Challenge has been so successful. Another Forbes writer, Matthew Herper, rebuts some of the Challenge's criticisms. Here's a perspective from a family who is currently battling ALS. Finally, this video has been making the rounds.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Humanity's stupidest war, continued

For Stephen Walt, the real problem with World War I is why it started, but why it lasted for as long as it did.

He lists several reasons: the static, defensive nature of the war that prevented either side from delivering a decisive, victorious blow to the other; the powerful political position of the military within the combatant countries' governments; the fact that the participants were industrial powers with large populations that could sustain their war efforts; the fact that both sides succumbed to the 'sunk costs' fallacy ("the more each side lost, the more it had to promise to deliver once victory was achieved"); and the ever-increasing territorial ambitions of the various combatants.

Walt also points to the role of propaganda and censorship in sustaining the war in spite of its unspeakable carnage:
A negotiated settlement was never seriously attempted, in part because censorship and wartime propaganda convinced citizens on both sides that victory was just around the corner. Tight military censorship ensured that populations back home got an overly upbeat picture of how the fighting was going, with reports from the front tending to omit bad news, portray defeats as victories, and offer upbeat assessments of future progress. As Prime Minister Lloyd George told a friend in 1916, "If the people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know."  

Furthermore, wartime propaganda portrayed the enemy as brutal monsters guilty of vast atrocities, and these malign images of the enemy hardened as the number of dead and wounded increased. How could politicians seriously entertain negotiating peace with the vicious opponents who were busily killing off the nation's youth?  Meanwhile, governments boosted public support by portraying the war as a noble crusade; in England, for instance, thousands of copies of poems like John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" were distributed to encourage the population not to "break faith with us who die."  In this atmosphere, anyone who seriously proposed negotiating an end to the fighting -- as Lord Lansdowne in England or historian Hans Delbrück in Germany did -- was quickly denounced as a traitor who was undermining morale at home.              
Walt argues that the lessons of World War I resonate today, especially as it relates to censorship, propaganda and the demonization of the enemy:
[T]he long and bitter experience of World War I reminds that truth is the "first casualty" in war, and gleaning accurate information about how a war is going is extremely difficult. Soldiers have a natural tendency to tell superiors what the latter want to hear, commanders will spin upbeat stories to maintain popular support so that they have time to deliver a victory, and the media are easily co-opted by their own feelings of patriotism and by sophisticated media management strategies (such as "embedding").   

This problem continues to bedevil us today: just look at all the upbeat reports of progress that we heard about Iraq or Afghanistan since 2002, and look at where both countries are now. Or ask yourself whether the "war on terror" is going well or not, and whether the vast sums spent on "dirty wars" in Yemen, Somalia, South Asia, or the Middle East been worth it. Today, as in World War I, the people paying for these wars, and providing the sons and daughters to fight them, are kept mostly in the dark about whether we are winning or losing. 

Third, the tendency to demonize and dehumanize the enemy remains a central feature of modern warfare, just as it was during the Great War. Today, Hamas offers up anti-Semitic and conspiratorial depictions of its Israeli oppressors, while Israelis increasingly embrace racist depictions of Palestinians. Sunni and Shia continue to kill each other over a doctrinal dispute dating back to the seventh century. Muslims and Hindus attack each other in India and elsewhere. If you believe you might have to kill a large number of foreigners, it helps to convince yourself that they aren't fully human. But World War I warns that treating enemies as if they are subhuman beasts only makes the conflict last longer, because politicians cannot compromise with a hated foe and many will think it is foolhardy even to try. And the longer a war lasts, the less likely it is that any of the warring parties will end up better off.

The slumberful world of ASMR videos

New York Times blogger Stephanie Fairyington describes her experiences with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), and its ever-growing presence on YouTube:
A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.
Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “Sound of pages.” What I discovered stunned me.

There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.
Although I haven't experienced it since I was a teenager - I must have somehow outgrown it - I am familiar with the sensation of ASMR. I remember it not so much for the initial "tingles" but rather the calm, pleasurable "trance" triggered by observing certain otherwise-mundane activities: mom diligently preparing dinner, my friends quietly talking to themselves while constructing something with Lego bricks or Tinkertoy, the schoolmate next to me cutting construction paper during art class, the Bob Ross painting show on PBS. I didn't have a name for the sensation and I never really spoke about it, because I wasn't sure that other people experienced it as well. I occasionally watch some of the videos Fairyington describes, because even if they no longer produce this enjoyable trance-like sensation for me, I still find them relaxing and of use as sleep aids.
The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many A.S.M.R. triggers. The most popular stimuli include whisperingtapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour.

For those not wired for A.S.M.R. — and even for those who, like me, apparently are — the videos and the cast of characters who produce them — sometimes called “ASMRtists” or “tingle-smiths” — can seem weird, creepy or just plain boring. (Try pitching the pleasures of watching a nerdy German guy slowly and silently assemble a computer for 30 minutes.)
This is because different triggers work on different people. What produces effects for one person might be fingernails-on-blackboard annoying for someone else.

Jordan Pearson delves delves further into the subculture of people who create and watch ASMR roleplay videos:
ASMR as an internet phenomenon took off in 2010, when a Reddit thread asking if anyone else had ever experienced it went viral, and thousands of people realized they weren’t the only ones who'd noticed the pleasant and foreign feeling.

An internet subculture of roleplay videos meant to evoke the sensation has since taken off. Tingle-seekers—lots of them—watch videos delivering agreed-upon triggers like soft whispers in order to feel what devotees vaguely describe as "brain orgasms" or pleasant tingles, though there really isn’t any word in the English language to accurately describe the strange sensation.

Many people have started making these videos themselves—gaining hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers along the way—and often with a twist: elaborate roleplaying with a weirdly maternal bent.
“The most popular roleplay requests are the ones that involve a lot of what I call ‘personal attention.’ An example of that would be, if you go to the eye doctor, for instance, they’re going to be very close to you,” Ally Maque, an ASMR YouTube personality with over one hundred thousand subscribers told me.

These "personal attention" roleplay videos are generally created to be intimate and realistic as possible; oftentimes, binaural recording is used to enhance the experience for the viewer. Which begs the question: is there something creepy or fetishistic about watching these kinds of videos? Why are they so popular? And what exactly is ASMR, anyway?
Although not much research has been conducted on the topic, both [researcher Nitin] Ahuja and Maque told me that their favourite speculative explanation is evolutionary. A commonly floated theory, they said, is that the connection between feelings of pleasure and intimate care stems from the practice of apes picking bugs out of each other’s fur. It’s pure conjecture, like much of the discourse surrounding ASMR, but it’s a possible explanation that seems to have gained traction among those invested in the culture.

Whether or not ASMR is a physiological phenomenon or provable by science at all is somewhat irrelevant; the sheer number of video views and word-of-mouth testaments to their effectiveness speaks volumes without scientific validation. “A lot of its validity comes from the fact that a lot of people’s narratives coincide with each other,” Ahuja told me.
Indeed, ASMR is difficult to describe and even more difficult to research. But it's a real phenomenon, as my own childhood experiences with the sensation as well as the popularity of ASMR videos - roleplay and otherwise - can attest.

If you're unfamiliar with ASMR and want to see if any of these videos work for you, the best place to start is the Reddit ASMR page, where links to ASMR videos are constantly posted. ASMR Hub and Soothetube are also good places to look.

Of course, as with any internet phenomenon, ASMR videos are ripe for parody. I find this one particularly funny, if not a bit gory at the end:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Humanity's stupidest war

One hundred years ago today, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, beginning what probably was - from the standpoint of the reasons behind it, the incredible death and destruction wrought by it, and how it caused an even more devastating war only two decades later - the stupidest and most unnecessary war in the history of humanity. The Atlantic's Burt Solomon describes World War I, and what it has meant for humanity in the century since it began:
It was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price. A hard-hearted peace treaty and a ravaged economy produced a “lost generation” of young Germans and led directly to the rise of Hitler and an even uglier worldwide conflagration. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached by Britain and France in 1916 drew arbitrary boundary lines across the postwar Middle East—around Iraq, for instance—that are returning deadly dividends to this day. The toppling of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a balkanized Europe that, as recently as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine, pains us still. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.
All wars tell us something about the basest regions of human nature, the First World War (caustically named in 1918 by an English journalist who thought it would not be the last) more than most. About the nature of covetousness, the perils of insecurity, the ease of losing human control over human events.
It's been said that conflicts on the scale of World Wars I and II will never happen again, due to the invention of nuclear weapons and their associated premise of mutual assured destruction. I'm not convinced, especially given the presence in today's world of nihilistic fanatics - e.g. jihadists - who don't care if they're destroyed, just as long as their enemies are annihilated as well. Aside from that, there is the primal and emotional nature of our species that sometimes tends to overwhelm our ability to reason, even in the face of unspeakable destruction. Solomon concludes:
Indeed, evidence is slim that we’ve grown wiser since the war intended to end all wars did nothing of the sort. Still, if it’s any consolation amid the tragedies and disorder of today’s world, Homo sapiens have been way stupider in the past than they are right now.
And if you haven't already seen it: if World War One was a bar fight. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A word about MH17

Commercial aviation disasters always disturb me, but I am especially horrified and haunted by the incident involving MH17, the Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people - 2/3rds of them Dutch citizens - that was shot down over Eastern Ukraine last Thursday.

Horrified, because hundreds of innocent people minding their own business on a flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur were slaughtered due to a conflict they had nothing to do with.

Haunted, because I have flown over that part of Ukraine several times before, during my travels to and from Dubai. In fact, the most direct route between IAH and DXB goes right over this area of conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Try it yourself on a globe or on Google Earth.

At the time I was making all those trips to Dubai and back, Eastern Ukraine was not embroiled in the conflict that it is today. But my flights took me over other areas of strife, such as Georgia, Transnistria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and of course, Iraq. I remember well the many times I stared out my airplane window as I flew over those areas, aware of the tension and outright violence occurring thousands of feet below but blithely assuming that those fighting would not have the wherewithal or desire to shoot down a third-party commercial airliner flying thirty-five thousand feet overhead.

As last Thursday's horror proves, however, that blithe assumption was wrong. And MH17 could have been any flight. Including, at another time or under another circumstance, my own.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims of those whose lives were claimed by this barbaric attack, and I hope that the thugs responsible for this catastrophe are one day brought to justice.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sixty days to kickoff, and an updated UH football schedule

As of today, two months remain until the 2014 University of Houston football season kicks off in its brand new stadium. The schedule has been updated since it was first released in March, with Tennessee Tech being replaced by UNLV and with some adjustments to game dates, so the Cougars' fall slate now looks like this:

     Fri Aug 29       Texas - San Antonio     Houston, TX     8:00 pm (ESPNU)
     Sat Sep 06       Grambling State           Houston, TX     7:00 pm
     Thu Sep 11      at BYU                         Provo, UT         8:00 pm (ESPN)
     Sat Sep 20       Nevada-Las Vegas       Houston, TX      TBA
     Thu Oct 02      Central Florida            Houston, TX      6:00 pm (ESPN)
     Sat Oct 11        at Memphis                 Memphis, TN    TBA
     Fri Oct 17        Temple                        Houston, TX      8:00 pm (ESPNU)
     Sat Nov 01       at USF                        Tampa, FL          TBA
     Sat Nov 08      Tulane                         Houston, TX       TBA
     Sat Nov 22      Tulsa                           Houston, TX       TBA
     Fri Nov 28       at SMU                       Dallas, TX          TBA
     Sat Dec 06      at Cincinnati                Cincinnati, OH   TBA

I'm still not too pleased with it, what with all the weak opponents and Thursday and Friday night games, but UNLV is definitely an upgrade from Tennessee Tech and I'm glad to see that, as of right now, at least four of our first five home games will be night kickoffs (so we can avoid the worst of the heat and enjoy some quality tailgating).

If I'm so inclined, I'll do my customary season preview as we get closer to kickoff. In the meantime, here's what Yardbarker has to say about the Coogs.

Who's up for a trip to Chile?

Because now you can fly there nonstop from Bush Intercontinental:
United Airlines, the U.S. airline with the most global route network, today announced the company will introduce service to Santiago, Chile, from its hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, beginning Dec. 7, 2014, subject to government approval.

Flight 847 will depart Houston daily at 9:05 p.m. and arrive in Santiago at 9:40 a.m. the next day. Return flight 846 will depart Santiago daily at 10:45 p.m. and arrive in Houston at 5:40 a.m. the following day. (All times are local.)

“Houston passengers already enjoy a high level of connectivity with Latin America,” says Chief Commercial Officer Ian Wadsworth.  “This new service strengthens those connections, allowing for even greater economic and cultural ties between the two regions.”
Santiago was the only major Latin American economic hub still not served by United from Houston (no offense to La Paz or Asunción), so this seems like a rather obvious addition to their route network. Santiago becomes the latest in a growing list of major international destinations (along with Istanbul, Beijing, Munich, Seoul, etc.) to be accessible from Houston on a non-stop flight.

In addition to the new Santiago service, United will also begin flying from Houston to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic this fall.

Also in December, Emirates will be upgrading its equipment on its Houston-Dubai route, becoming the second airline (after Lufthansa) to fly the Airbus A380 to Bush Intercontinental airport.

My little gardens, continued

They might be tiny, but my two little 4'x4' gardens have been awfully productive this past month:
It might not be readily apparent from the camera angle and the way I'm holding it, but this eggplant was huge! I'm also holding some basil and dill in my fingers behind the plant, which I used to season it when I cut it up and sauteed it.

Thanks in part to the decent rains we got over the course of June, my cherry tomato plants have gone crazy. I returned from vacation a week ago to find the plants overflowing with ripe tomatoes, which I harvested and could barely contain in this three-quart plastic bowl.

Vegetables aren't the only thing that has been growing in my garden; my dill plant did exactly as I had intended and provided a home for a couple of black swallowtail caterpillars. This is the first time I've successfully raised black swallowtails in several years.

I don't consider myself a master gardener by any means, so needless to say I am pretty pleased with myself right now.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Houston's sprawl, illustrated

Via Swamplot, a fascinating animation showing the pattern of Houston's residential development over the past seventy years:
This animation is one of several created by Ian Rees, as Swamplot explains:
Using data from the American Community Survey, Rees mapped structures in the region by the decade they were built, grading their concentration with varying shades of blue.  The result helps us visualize the decades-long march of Houston housing ever outward. 
Because the shading is based on housing density, darker tracts generally indicate areas where significant apartment, condominium and townhome development occurred. This map illustrates the explosion of that type of development on the western and southwestern side of town in the 60s and 70s, which ended up giving us urban artifacts such as the Gulfton Ghetto after the oil bust of the 80s. The emergence, starting in the 1970s, of suburban "master-planned" communities such as Friendswood, Kingwood, Cinco Ranch, The Woodlands and Clear Lake City is also perceptible. Finally, this map shows how denser redevelopment returned to areas inside the loop (especially areas west of downtown) after 1990; this trend continues today.

With the metropolitan area continuing to add people, jobs and houses at a rapid pace, and with no geographic boundaries to contain it, this sprawling development pattern is likely to continue into future decades. Barring some significant social or economic upheaval, of course.